Whether it's a fierce family board game or cheering from the soccer sidelines, it's fun to watch your kids learn to compete. Games and competitive sports are fun, and they can help foster self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment for children. But what happens when your child responds to a victory by bragging—or a loss with a tantrum?
As parents, it can be hard to see your child act like a so-called "sore loser," but the truth is that teaching children to lose graciously is an essential part of growing up. It's a developmental milestone that can take some time and practice for children to master (and let's face it, some adults could use a little refresher).
Thanks to Leesha M. Ellis-Cox, MD, MPH, affectionately known as Dr. Leesha, a double board-certified child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, and Happy Family Organics' Happy Baby Expert, we have some tips to help your child handle defeat or victory with dignity.
It's normal for kids to have feelings about losing—but how you respond to those feelings can shape their future attitude
As Dr. Leesha reminds us, "No one likes to lose, not our children and not us. But as parents, it is vital that we both validate their feelings and model desirable behaviors." So what are you supposed to do when your child throws a tantrum after losing?
Dr. Leesha shares that empathizing and making your child feel understood is the first step. Still, it's important to set boundaries around acceptable behavior or what's off limits for your family—name calling, physical aggression or any other destructive behavior. "Let them feel all the feels, then help them find healthy ways to deal with their emotions."
Some coping strategies she mentions include using words to express their feelings or breathing exercises (mamas can use these too).
Teaching the behavior starts with parents because those little eyes watch everything we do. "Model good sportsmanship yourself and manage your own emotional response,” she says. “Congratulate the winner even if it's not your player or your child's team, don't yell at the officials if you don't agree with the call, and cheer on other players."
Letting your child win all the time doesn't teach them how to lose
We've all been there, especially with younger kids. You want them to succeed so badly that you give them an extra turn or let them win, maybe to avoid a tantrum, but it's not doing them any favors. Dr. Leesha shares that letting your child win sometimes is OK. But if they never experience losing, she says, "We falsely inflate their ego and forfeit teaching our children some critical life lessons, like learning how to fail."
Life is full of failure—that's how we grow and learn—and we want our children to have the tools to deal with it. Dr. Leesha advises that our job as parents is to prepare our children for the real world. "Our children need to know that they are good, capable and smart, whether they win or they lose," she says.
Sports teams are a great way to learn about cooperation and competition, but a child's age can dictate how they understand and process the concept. Preschoolers and young children are more likely to have a tantrum or pout after losing. Dr. Leesha explains, "Younger children are egocentric, so they believe the world revolves around them." Teaching them about the importance of teams and cooperation in a group setting can be fun, but a non-competitive environment is best.
As children get older, recreational teams can also help kids learn about rules and team building—but save the super competitive clubs for older kids. "Reserving the competitive approach to sports for older children (9 years old and up) works best because, at this age, children are better able to weather the pressure of winning and losing in more emotionally healthy ways."
But she also explains that every child is different, and some may be ready for sports earlier or later (or not at all). "No matter the age, it is always important to follow your child's lead as to what level of competition for which they are ready."
Celebrate the wins while still teaching your child how to win graciously
It's fun to celebrate a big victory, but teaching a child to win gracefully is as important as teaching them to lose with dignity. Here are Dr. Leesha's tips for teaching humility while still celebrating a win:
- Thank teammates, coaches, and anyone who comes to watch a game or competitive event.
- Prioritize respect and good sportsmanship for opponents, officials and coaches—from both your child and yourself.
- Focus not just on the outcome but also on the effort they put into practicing, cheering on teammates and refusing to quit. This goes for all types of competition, from spelling bees to board games.
If you aren't sure how to open the conversation with your child, Dr. Leesha also shares some of her favorite books that teach about good sportsmanship:
No matter what age your child is, it's essential to teach them the importance of good sportsmanship. You can celebrate their wins while teaching that failing is a normal and healthy part of life.